COMPLEAT HOME GARDENER: Winter presents challenges for gardeners

Stormy days and stormy nights. Winter always presents a challenge to gardens and gardeners but there are a few things you can do now to protect your growing investments.

1. Don’t top your trees.

Although recent wind storms have blown plenty of weak trees into yards and even on top of homes, removing just the top of a tree, especially an evergreen tree, is never a good idea. This is because you mess with the “apical dominance” or top leader of the tree, causing side branches to grow wider in an attempt to become the new leader. All this competitive side growth can act like a sail to catch the wind and bring down the topped tree even more easily than had it been left alone. Thinning out a few side branches is fine. Beheading is not

2. Remove dead or diseased trees and branches.

Weak wood goes first in a wind storm, so it is prudent to remove dead, damaged or diseased trees that could fall on yours or your neighbor’s house. Use a certified arborist to identify which trees are in poor health and – unless you compete in the Buckley Logger’s Rodeo – hire a professional to take down large trees.

3. Leave some dead trees for wildlife.

Woodpeckers, small owls, insects and furry animals all look at dead trees as new homes or a fast food supply. If you have a dead or dying tree that isn’t going to cause a lot of damage when it falls, consider letting it rot. Call it a snag, or a nature condo or add a clematis vine or rambling rose to cover the nakedness with a coat of blooms. Even after a tree falls to the ground it can become part of the backyard ecosystem. If you have the room for a rotting log to fester in a corner of the yard you’ll be able to watch as birds, salamanders, toads and new plant seedlings move in and moss replaces the bark.

4. Don’t let snow sit on top of evergreen shrubs.

Use a broom to knock snow from the branches of rhododendrons, camellias and viburnums before the weight snaps branches.

5. But leave snow piled on top of perennials, container gardens and small shrubs.

Snow is nature’s insulating blanket against the drying effect of the winter wind. Perennials under a few feet of snow are more likely to survive a freezing winter than perennials openly exposed to the elements.

6. Beware of salt when you treat icy walkways.

A bag of rock salt will melt the ice on driveways and sidewalks but then when the spring rains arrive the salt leaches into the soil and acts like a poison. Two stories about salt: one, during the Civil War soldiers from the north spread salt on the fields of their southern enemies and the result was a generation of ruined farm land; two, I wish I had heard this before I spread rock salt around my first garden when I was 12 years old. I was determined to get rid of all the slugs in my tiny garden but instead, after a good rainfall, all my plants were limp and dead. (Now imagine a few dozen slugs oozing slime all over my dead plants and you’ll understand why this scene still haunts me.) Too much salt is deadly to all life. Try sand or even kitty litter to give you traction on icy pathways.

7. Move your most tender plants indoors or cover them with bubble wrap, sheets or the oil cloth tablecloth you used outdoors last summer. But keep your plants covered only during icy weather. Once the sun comes out and the temperature rises, remove your blankets of protection to prevent plant suffocation.

Then remember that winter is when the garden rests, restores itself and refreshes. There is an incredibly, beautiful spring season waiting to bloom – but first your garden needs winter.

• • •

Marianne Binetti has a degree in horticulture from Washington State University and is the author of “Easy Answers for Great Gardens” and several other books. For book requests or answers to gardening questions, write to her at: P.O. Box 872, Enumclaw, 98022. Send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a personal reply. For more gardening information, she can be reached at her Web site,

Copyright for this column owned by Marianne Binetti.

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